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Anthony, Lillard Make it Close in Denver, but Blazers Fall

Despite torrential scoring from two Hall-of-Famers, Portland drops their third straight.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Carmelo Anthony spent most of the first half reminding the Denver Nuggets who used to take names and dominate the opposition in a No. 15 jersey. Unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, Nikola Jokic reminded them of who wears it now. With some late-game help from star teammate Jamal Murray, the two of them put together enough plays to escape with a hard-fought 111-106 victory.

The loss dropped the Blazers to 18-13, and into the West’s No. 6 spot with four games remaining in the NBA’s first half schedule.

This loss in particular is unusual, in that Portland went three quarters with only one player — Anthony — scoring off the bench. Midrange shots and cornrow-styled hair are no longer the popular style, but Portland came a few bounces away from turning 2020 into 2004. Anthony poured in 24, Lillard erupted late for 25, and the Blazers had three others score 15+ in a losing effort.

That in mind, here are some thoughts on tonight’s game:

For the second time in as many nights, Portland’s offense was disorganized to start. Portland only mustered one field goal on its first six possessions. While waiting for their No. 6 ranked offense to thaw, the Blazers turned to their defensive energy to keep the game in question.

As is the case with each game, the chess match between how Denver schemed to defend Damian Lillard served as the central story. The Nuggets didn’t concede much space for Lillard to call his own number, but the newly-named six-time All-Star facilitated to find teammates for six assists in the first quarter alone.

The biggest beneficiary was Enes Kanter, who used the short roll to float his way into eight points or sift through reads for assists of his own. In spite of their efforts, the Blazers fell into a 34-25 hole leading into the second quarter because of Denver’s transition offense.

It’s become a pressing question over the last few weeks, and it likely made its rounds among Portland households during tonight’s game: how on Earth are the Blazers going to generate efficient offense with Damian Lillard on the bench?

Portland entered Tuesday as the NBA’s absolute worst team in terms of second quarter point differential (-3.3) and No. 26 in points (26.9), largely because their offensive star rests, and there isn’t a CJ McCollum available to stagger that and stop the potential bleeding. Portland found offensive respite through Carmelo Anthony.

Nuggets coach Mike Malone forced his own commercial break and schemed up a different strategy to stop Anthony’s torrential downpour: double teams from the entry pass defender or from the baseline, forcing Anthony to play more quarterback. Those passes to weak side shooters, paired with Lillard’s return to the game set up the Blazers nicely; they weathered the storm, and took a 57-57 standstill into the second half.

Having the Blazers-Nuggets cap off Tuesday on primetime offered a chance for a national audience to see two Most Valuable Player candidates — Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard — duke it out at the same time. The box score didn’t always show it, but the tape certainly will.

Utilizing pick-and-pops and and touch in the lane, Jokic made life difficult for the Blazers’ defense, hoisting his way into 30 points early into the third quarter (on 25 shots).

On the other end, Lillard repeatedly probed the lane, setting his guys up, and hitting the occasional shot to keep defenses honest. What he lacked in gaudy point totals, he made up for in point creation, with 12 assists heading into the fourth quarter.

Outside of that, here are three other takeaways heading into the fourth: (1) Portland went three quarters and had only one bench player score, in Anthony. (2) Nassir Little appears to be earning Terry Stotts’ trust; he was the first sub to walk to the scorer’s table, and he rewarded Stotts with energy. (3) Keep a monitor on Lillard’s shoulder, as TNT’s broadcast noted. On two separate occasions, he hit 3-pointers, only to airball the next attempt.

When Neil Olshey put together his vision for Portland last offseason, the Blazers’ defensive efforts in the fourth quarter were likely what he had in mind. Using the length and energy of Little, Hood, and Covington to mirror Jamal Murray’s movements, the Trail Blazers had answers for the Nuggets offense with Jokic resting.

Legend has it, Murray read that above sentence, and immediately took offense. Literally. After starting the game 1-of-9, Murray erupted for 15 fourth-quarter points. The feeling in the air suggested a duel with Lillard was coming, but Denver’s defense put together enough resistance to kill off suspense.

Box Score

What’s next:

Portland gets a two-day break before their prime time, measuring stick game against the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at 7 p.m. ET.